Dallas Cowboys Undrafted Free Agents: Show Me The Money?

Jason Smith

The Dallas Cowboys have signed 15 undrafted college free agents this year. Their chances for making the team are slim, but some will make it. Have you ever wondered how much each of those 15 guys stands to get paid for his troubles?

Tavon Austin made headlines recently when he told the St Louis Rams website that everybody he knows is asking him for money:

“Everybody expects a lot of things from you as far as money. Everybody wants to be around you. My phone doesn’t stop ringing now. It feels like they’re counting my bank account now. So that’s probably the hardest thing for me right now, just people.”

Funny thing is, Austin hasn't received a single NFL paycheck yet - and won't receive one until the regular season kicks off.

Our own Tom Ryle recently chronicled how Tyron Smith's family was coming down hard on Smith for money. There's a common (mis-)perception that as soon as somebody puts on a uniform for an NFL team, that guy starts raking in gazillions of dollars.

And while that may be true for the top draft picks each year, the road to riches is not quite as clear for the lower-round picks - and certainly not for the college free agents. Like every year, the UDFAs will fight hard and give everything they have to make the final 53 man roster of the Dallas Cowboys. Like every year, most of them will not make it. Realistically, many UDFAs are battling for a spot on the practice squad, and even that option will be out of reach for most of them.

Starting with the OTAs tomorrow, these guys will play their hearts out, subject their bodies to tremendous physical abuse and go through enormous mental stress every time the roster sizes are reduced, first to 75 following preseason week 3, and finally to 53 players after the last preseason game.

Have you ever wondered how much they get paid for this?

Before we get into the details of how much they get paid, let's look at what could potentially await them, if they make the final roster. All the rookies who make the Cowboys' Active/Inactive List (basically the 53 man roster plus players on Injured Reserve and Physically Unable to Play) will be signed to the rookie minimum contract with a salary of $405k and will be given a signing bonus determined by which spot they were drafted in (First-round pick Morris Claiborne received a $10.6M signing bonus last year, sixth-round pick James Hanna got $105k). At first glance, it may look strange that all rookies are getting the same base salary, but that has to do with the accounting rules surrounding the Rookie Compensation Pool and the Rule Of 51.

Rookies signed to the practice squad make significantly less: Assuming a player spends the whole 2013 season on the practice squad, he'll get paid a minimum $102,000 in installments of $6,000 for every week of the 17-week regular season schedule.

So making the 53 man roster is financially more rewarding than making the practice squad. No big surprise there. But how much do the players make on their way to one of these roster spots? Here's where we break it down.

NFL Contract Structure

A rookie who makes the 53-man roster will get a rookie salary of $405,000 in 2013. But there's a catch. NFL players only get paid during the regular season. Base salaries (Paragraph 5 salaries) in the NFL are paid in 17 installments over the course of the regular season. Not before. If you're an UDFA looking to get rich fast, the NFL may not be the best place for you.

Joining the Cowboys

Once a rookie free agent signs a contract, he usually receives a small bonus. These bonuses are mostly in the $3,000 to $5,000 range, but if a particular free agent is heavily sought after by a number of NFL teams, that bonus may go up as far as $20,000. Per the new CBA in 2011, only a maximum of about $75,000 per team ("Undrafted Rookie Reservation") may be paid to undrafted rookies as signing bonuses or amounts treated as signing bonuses. That figure will increase or decrease each year in line with the percentage change of the total Rookie Compensation Pool, and this year stands at $78,120.

There is a loophole here that the Cowboys have employed the last two years: While the signing bonus each team is allowed to pay their UDFAs is limited, there's no limit to the amount of guaranteed money the teams can offer. In 2012, the Cowboys offered priority free agent OG Ronald Leary $214,000 in guaranteed money, this year LB Brandon Magee was offered $70,000 in guaranteed money to sign in Dallas.

Signing bonuses, as the name implies, are paid out immediately after the contract is signed. After that, the UDFAs have to make do with "per diem expenses".

Off-Season Workouts and Minicamps:

All veteran players attending off-season workouts, like the OTAs starting tomorrow, get a per diem of $175 per day as stipulated in the CBA.

NFL CBA, Article 21, Section 3: "Each player shall receive at least the following amounts per day for any workouts or classroom instruction in which he participates pursuant to a Club’s voluntary offseason workout program, provided the player fulfills the Club’s reasonable offseason workout requirements: $175 (2013–14 League Years)."

Rookies are eligible for a per diem of $155/day (minus the teams cost for housing) over the 7 week rookie development program.

Training Camp

Once training camp starts, all rookies (drafted and undrafted) get per diem payments at the rate of $925 a week, which isn't that bad considering that housing and meals are provided by the Cowboys. Veterans get slightly more at $1,700 a week. These payments end one week before the regular season opener, and base salaries then commence in 17 installments over the course of the regular season.

NFL CBA, Article 23:

Rookie Per Diem: "A first-year player will receive “per diem” payments, commencing with the first day of Preseason Training Camp and ending one week prior to the Club’s first regular season game, at the following weekly rates for the respective League Years: $925 (2013–14 League Years)."

Veteran Per Diem: "A veteran player will receive “per diem” payments, commencing with the first day of Preseason Training Camp and ending one week prior to the Club’s first regular season game, at the following weekly rates for the respective League Years: $1,700 (2013–14 League Years)."

Making the roster

If they make the 53 man roster, the UDFAs get the rookie minimum of $405,000 or 1/17th of that as a check every week, as long as they keep their roster spot. Additionally, they may get a small ('small' relative to the base salary) signing bonus, but this will be lower than the bonuses received by the drafted players.

If they get signed to a spot on the eight-man practice squad, they are paid a minimum salary of $6,000 per week, or $102,900 over the full regular season if they keep their spot on the practice squad. If a team makes the playoffs, these payments continue for as long as the team is in the playoffs. To protect their players from other teams, or because they really like the potential of a given player, some teams pay their roster squad players significantly more. In 2011 for example, the Patriots paid DE Markell Carter a practice squad salary of $306,000, quite a bit higher than the minimum.

The upside of the practice squad is that if a player is called up to the 53-man regular roster, either by his own team or by another team, he automatically signs a contract with the $405,000 minimum salary. Also, three weeks of that contract are guaranteed (3/17th of $405,000 = $71,500), even if that player is released, waived or traded before the three weeks are up.

It's going to be tough for any of the 15 UDFAs to make the Cowboys' roster - think of it as an all expenses paid boot camp - but if they end up signing a contract with the Cowboys, they'll get paid handsomely. They won't be able to go out and buy a private jet right away, but they'll probably be making more money than most of their college classmates.

All contract situations outlined above come with standard NFL insurance and buyout provisions should a player get injured.

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